On 4 June, much of Beijing will silently remember the bloody crackdown that took place in and around Tiananmen Square 20 years ago. A few blocks away, Vogue magazine and the Italian fashion house Gucci will celebrate in style their designer’s arrival in China, seemingly oblivious to the seminal events of the neighbourhood that riveted the world two decades ago to the day.
The luxury brand turning a blind eye to the Tiananmen anniversary will be a far cry from the world’s initial reaction in 1989, when global leaders roundly condemned China’s government as dictators and brutes. The country’s international trade suffered, its reputation was sullied and China was branded undesirable. It’s an atmosphere that is difficult to even imagine in Beijing now, amid the overwhelming presence of international companies and foreign brands, with more foreign trade and expat residents than ever before.
Much of the collective amnesia about 4 June, 1989, can be credited to the Chinese government, which has toiled long and hard to make the movement and crackdown the country’s most taboo topic. History books and news media have been scrubbed clean, and parents typically refrain from telling their children too much. It’s difficult to find a 20-something who knows more than a tiny bit about it. Those old enough to remember typically refrain from speaking about it, for fear of reprisals in many forms.
Yet despite the economic marvel of the last decade in China that seemed to leave the Tiananmen movement far behind, new calls have emerged for government reform, an end to corruption, and regarding the event itself, a full accounting of the dead (estimates range from the hundreds to the thousands).
It’s clear this week in Beijing that the events of 20 years ago are not far from the minds of those who remember. It’s also unsurprising, given that one million people joined the movement at its height.
While visiting a park in the middle of town on 2 June to talk to some retirees about a completely unrelated, uncontroversial subject, I was jolted by their openness. I casually asked one man what he thought of America and he replied, ‘You have more freedom than we do.’
Two more, out of earshot on the other side of the park, clucked when I said the life of a Chinese retiree seemed quite pleasant. ‘We don’t have human rights,’ one said.
These were not peasants, nor protesters, nor people petitioning the government with grievances. They were ordinary, middle-class Beijingers. They were also old enough to remember when the tanks rolled into town 20 years ago.
In Tiananmen Square on 3 June, those who may have come to remember were outnumbered and overwhelmed by hundreds upon hundreds of police and soldiers, some in uniform, many more in plain clothes, barely trying to blend in. The square remains open to the public, though heavily guarded, in marked contrast to 10 years ago when officials felt they needed to close it off completely.
With so many silent, there may seem no need to close the square. But signs to the contrary keep emerging. A group of 20 intellectuals met in Beijing last month to discuss the democracy movement and the need for government reform. Their anger remains intact.
Professor Cui Weiping, in a letter reprinted on her blog, said too many have been complicit in silence for too long.
‘If the situation remains the same for another 10 years, June 4th will no longer be a crime that was committed by a small group of people, but one that we all participated in,’ she wrote.